Taking it to the streets

They are mostly women, strong and fit, wearing jeans and flat shoes. They are laborers, union members. Maybe they're even the makings of a movement. They are Justice for Janitors, and they're out to change the world. They not only want higher wages and better benefits for the workers who clean the city's office buildings at night -- they want peace for the people and headaches for the higher-ups.

Their hooting and hollering have disrupted a D.C. Council meeting. They've stopped traffic time and again with their demonstrations -- including once last month on the 14th Street Bridge, during rush hour. Last night the janitors were out again, hand-delivering their own proposal to solve the District's budget crisis to Council member Harold Brazil at his Capitol Hill home. They've prompted a business columnist at this newspaper to call them "bush league" for "raising a ruckus" in front of a real estate developer's home.

One of them, Lisa Fithian, tried to get House Speaker Newt Gingrich's goat by yelling down to him from a visitors' gallery in the Capitol, right after the morning prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. "Hey Newt, if you want to save D.C., tax Oliver Carr," she screamed. She was escorted away, however, before she got a chance to explain the connection she sees between the two.

Washington native Dania Herring, who quit her job as a janitor to organize full time, gets arrested frequently at demonstrations for workers' rights. "The union was always a shoulder or a hand or something to fall back on," she says. "But without the union, you're nothing."

Whether we think the people who fight for Justice for Janitors are heroes or hooligans, they've got our attention. And when they decide to act, the region usually watches.

"I like the fact that they get under our skin," WAMU-FM political analyst Mark Plotkin says of the janitors' group, which is attached to the Service Employees International Union's Local 82. "They traumatize the system, they make people uncomfortable, they disrupt daily life. I like the fact that they name names. They represent people at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, a lot of whom are undocumented workers who don't speak English. In the Gingrich era, the suburbs have spokesmen, but this class of citizens doesn't. . . . They sort of remind me of the '60s."

Which is fine if you have fond memories of that decade.

"Maybe I'm out of touch, or too young or too old or I don't know what, but I just find them reprehensible," says Brazil, who has opposed a property tax increase that the janitors are endorsing.

He is a leader of the self-described "Magnificent Seven" -- council members who are attempting to block property taxes from rising with inflation as they do automatically each year under a long-standing law. For months, the seven have been battling Mayor Marion Barry on the issue.

But obstructionism has its limits as far as Brazil is concerned.

"I just don't support using guerrilla tactics," he says, fuming about the day Justice for Janitors invaded his office. "My private office!" he says. "They locked the doors and wouldn't leave. We had to drill holes in the door and carry them out of there. That's plain old disrespect and hooliganism."

When they march, they carry signs saying that D.C. has Carr trouble, as in Oliver T. Carr Jr., the city's largest landlord. Considering that the city is broke, they think he should pay more taxes.

"They're a nuisance," says Karen Widmayer, speaking for the Oliver Carr Co. Carr himself "will not talk about this," she says. "It doesn't merit him talking about it. I think the contempt charges we brought against them {after they picketed Carr's home last month} are probably the most appropriate commentary."

D.C. Superior Court Judge Ann O'Regan Keary ruled last week that the janitors were indeed picketing and not praying, as they had claimed, and that they thereby violated a restraining order. She ordered them to pay Carr's legal costs -- about $15,000. That was after she watched a videotape of the demonstrators marching and chanting "We'll be back" outside of the house where Carr's wife, Kathleen, and the couple's infant triplets were said to be "terrified."

Not all of the janitors' demonstrations are that dramatic, though.

They marched in circles one recent afternoon, shaking soda cans filled with BBs, making a rhythmic, almost calming noise. It was lunchtime and the sidewalks would have been busy even without the demonstrators, some 70-strong. As they milled around on the corners of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, salesmen rumbled by pushing luggage carts piled high with copiers and computer equipment. Sightseeing elementary school students bunched their two neat lines into one amoebic mass as they hit the crosswalk. They seemed mildly intrigued by the demonstrators, but not transfixed.

Even the police were cool, sticking to one corner, close to their three cruisers. They had a patrol wagon at the ready, but it was clear they didn't expect trouble. And they got none, even though they ended up arresting eight of the demonstrators.

In response to a signal, those who had been selected to be civilly disobedient moseyed out to the middle of the intersection and sat down right in front of Carr Co. headquarters.

"I guess they got their job to do too," Herring, 24, says of the cops. "They treat us nice, though, 'cause they remember we were down at the District Building protesting with them."

Herring was a janitor at CNN's Capitol Hill headquarters before quitting to become a full-time organizer at Local 82. In the year that has passed, the Ballou High School graduate has been "CD'd," or arrested for civil disobedience, seven times.

"When I first started, I was shy," Herring says. "But then it got fun, to go out and protest." And it got surreal, as she found herself shoulder to shoulder with police officers a month ago, turning out at a D.C. Council meeting. The police were there to protest a 12 percent pay cut the council had ordered for the department's unionized workers. The janitors were there to protest everything. Or so it seemed to some.

"There's not a clear logic between what they're saying and what they're doing," says Brazil. "Essentially they use anarchy as a means of organizing workers. And they do that under the mantle of justice -- for janitors -- or whoever else they want to organize."

Brazil's media person, Sally Weinbrom, describes the demonstrating janitors with a singularly anachronistic phrase. They're "outside agitators," she says. "They're politicizing the debate without effecting what seems to be their goal."

Fithian, 33, a Justice for Janitors organizer who is from New York state but who has lived in the District for nearly nine years, says her union has a giant agenda for fairly simple reasons.

"Our members are residents of the District of Columbia who rely on city services, schools and health programs," she says. "They are not living high on the hog. Many of them are living paycheck to paycheck, and when you have services being cut, they are affected."

Herring, who has two sets of twins -- ages 7 and 2 -- and whose husband is an unemployed bricklayer, sizes up the city's budget crisis in practical terms. There's the shortening of the public school year, the cutback of the police department's budget.

"I live in Southeast, in a bad neighborhood," she says. "We have drug dealers and shootings and things like that. We really need the police there, so that's what really made me get involved."

If Carr and other real estate managers were to pay their "fair share" of property taxes, Herring believes, the city would be in better shape. But Brazil and his colleagues have a different definition of fairness.

"People have got to start seeing government cutting itself back," Brazil says. "People are looking for that kind of a signal now. It's getting real hairy now with a lot of people and businesses trying to decide whether they're leaving or staying. . . . The days of tax and spend have to be over."